Crescent and croissants: the difficult history of French Islam

An analysis of the Burkini controversy and a plea for the acknowledgment of the historical importance of Islam in France

The crescent and the croissant are respective symbols of Islam and France. At first glance, they might not seem to have a lot in common, but the croissant, arguably one of the most famous pillars of French culture and cuisine, was originally created by the Austrians and shaped like a crescent in order to commemorate the victory against the Ottoman army in 1683. It thus remains to this day a foreign importation inspired by Islamic symbolism. This trivial comparison serves as a way to show that, much like the croissant, Islam can and should be incorporated in the social and cultural fabric of French society.

The French Model of Secularism: Laïcité and Islam

The concept of laïcité was born in 1905 after a law was voted ensuring the “freedom of religious practice” and the separation between the Catholic Church and the state through the end of subsidies granted to the Church and to priests. This law was controversial in a country with a large Catholic majority but was supported by the socialists and liberals of the time as a way to reinforce the young Third Republic and promote republican values, in education notably, with the creation of public schools as an alternative to Catholic ones. The law of 1905 reshaped the role of religion in public life and formed part of the European-wide movement of secularization of the 20th century.

The advent of Islam in France, as described above, led to a heated debate on the scope of laïcité. The first controversy surrounding Islam dates back to the “affaire du foulard” of 1989, in which two teenage girls were expelled from their public school for refusing to take off their hijab while at school. The contention inspired the government to adopt a law in 2004, which banned any “ostentatious” signs or symbols part of religious clothing in public schools and in 2010 a law prohibited the “dissimulation of one’s face” in the “public space,” in direct reference to the Islamic burqa.  


A Long History of Islam in France:  

This evolution of laïcité, from the guarantor of religious freedom to the justification for Islamophobic laws, comes from the common belief that Islam is not only foreign to French society but that it is also incompatible with it. It might then be surprising to some that France  shares thirteen centuries of close relations with Islam. The latter actually reached and settled in France possibly as early as the 7th or 8th century as attest the recent discovery of Muslims tombs in the south of France. This is much earlier than other Muslim-majority countries today such as Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina or countries in Sub-Saharan Africa such as Burkina Faso. Yet, with the failed invasion of France by the Umayyads in 732, most Muslims were kept out.

During this demographic break, Islam strongly influenced French diplomatic, political, military and artistic life. As a matter of fact, the French were in constant contact and rivalry with Muslims for most of the Middle Ages. A French nobleman notably became the first King of Jerusalem in 1099 and inaugurated a series of dynasties dominated by the French, establishing a durable relation between French Christians and local Muslims for almost two centuries.

With the advent of colonialism, the French conquered and colonized Algeria (1830), Tunisia (1880) and Morocco (1912). For the first time in history (and for over a century in the case of Algeria), French citizens and local Arab Muslims coexisted more or less peacefully on the same territory. Algeria even became an integral part of the metropolitan territory in 1847 when it officially became a French département.

During the World Wars, hundreds of thousands of colonized Muslim men were sent to the front or to work in factories. They fought, struggled and died with the French side by side, constituting an important shift in the relations between colonizer and colonized. It also prompted the French military to take decisions regarding religious life for soldiers: as early as 1914, the military ordered that all religious confessions should be respected and accommodated, and imams were hired to hold offices for Muslim soldiers.

The end of WWII in 1945 led to the wave of decolonization but also to mass migration movements from the former colonies to the metropole. In 1954, Algerian immigrants were 210.000, ten years later their number was more than doubled and many of them endured precarious living situations, with 43% of them living in slums. Today, French Muslims are estimated to represent 7.5% of the total French population, the highest percentage in Western Europe. Islam has thus become the second most important religion in France.

The Burkini Affair:

It is in the tense context of the recent terrorist attacks in the Bataclan and Nice, that the Burkini Affair emerged this summer. Personally, this affair represents for me, the latest emanation of French politicians’ obsession with the sanctity of a perverted interpretation of laïcité. From the separation of religion and state in 1905, it has now become a pretext to ban all forms of religiosity in the French public space. In fact, the municipal decrees implicitly prohibiting the burkini cannot be legally justified by the law of 1905. It is troubling that a large portion of the political class – and sadly of the French population – considers that laïcité entails the erasing of anything religious in public life. As one French politician put it,

“what are we legislating here? Is it a law against the burkini or a law against all religious signs in the public space? In the latter case, we would be prohibiting all forms of religious processions. It would be quite strange that those who claim France’s Christian roots and heritage also ban celebration in the honor of Christian saints.”


Clearly, that is not their intention. The mayors – and their supporters – who implemented such decrees are thus purely and simply promoting Islamophobic measures against French Muslims.

Now, what is hard to understand, is that one actually needs to distinguish between the rampant Islamophobia of the progressists and the conservatives. The latter claim that France’s Judeo-Christian history and culture need to be preserved and are incompatible with any other, justifying the ban of all Muslims signs. The former seek the same result but argue that Islamic modest clothing for women is a form of female subordination and an extremist outfit and thus cannot constitute a respectable religious symbol within French society. This position is supported by France’s Prime Minister, Manuel Valls. In a public statement, he states that

“denouncing the burkini does not constitute a questioning of personal liberties. There is no freedom which locks women up! It constitutes a denouncement of a lethal and retrograde form of Islam. A vision which I do not accept in the name of the role Islam needs to find within our society.”

Both extremes, on each side of this intolerant spectrum, prove that for all the history linking Islam and France, Islam is still not regarded as a legitimate French religion, compatible with the French republican values of equality and liberty. As Bruno Etienne, a French historian, put it:

“Even though Muslims have been present – more or less continuously – in our country for thirteen centuries , Islam is still not perceived as an indigenous religion. It remains the faith of men destined to leave one day. And in the collective imaginary, it remains a religion which is inassimilable.”

The decision of a French high court to consider the anti-burkini decrees illegal gives hope that France’s judicial system can remain above the political and demagogic discourse. Nevertheless, it will take more than that to bring together secular French and French Muslims and the damage this controversy caused will be hard to mend… Instead of perverting the egalitarian and just idea of laïcité, the political class from both sides of the aisle should thus offer concrete and real solutions in order to help integrate Islam within France’s multicultural and multiconfessional landscape. This could include providing more spaces for believers (there are only less than 2500 places of Muslim worship in France or about 1 for 1.200 worshipers), guaranteeing the possibility of Islamic religious training in order to train moderate French imams, and educating French children about the historical religious diversity in French history. 

Without such drastic but necessary measures, hatred, inequalities, and injustice will continue to fuel extremism, radicalization and despair within the Muslim communities and French Muslims will never be able to be recognized as active members of our French culture, history, and society. 

Guillaume Biganzoli

Guillaume is a French-American dual Master candidate with Sciences Po Paris and the London School of Economics studying International Relations and Security. Currently based in Paris, he has also gained professional experience in the United States and Belgium. Guillaume specializes in the Middle East and North Africa region and has previously written for The Caravel, Georgetown University's international newspaper, and the LSE Middle East Centre Blog. He is passionate about the Arabic language and cinema, Model UN and human rights issue.
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  • A Heart of Blood: Muslims Crowd French Prisons
    6 October 2016 at 11:21 am
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